movie: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train is based on the novel of the same title by Paula Hawkins. I have not read the book, and knew nothing of it when I was invited with a group of friends to go see it in the theatre. For a total unknown like that, I found it quite enjoyable. One of my dates who had read the book reported some changes in adaptation, and it sounds like the book was better; but what else is knew. I think the real issue is that books don’t become movies and still resemble their book-selves. This is natural. Perhaps we should stop expecting bookishness from film.

girl-on-the-trainRachel is divorced, and having some trouble moving on. She takes the train to work everyday past her former home, where her ex-husband lives with new wife and baby. She obsesses. Then she shifts her obsession, just slightly, to the couple who live a few doors down from her ex. She watches them; she imagines them the perfect couple. She sees something; and things spin out of control.

Suspense and surprise are a big part of this movie’s thrill, so I’ll leave it at that. There is a major plot turn I’m afraid to even hint at, but it’s a good one. Another big part of this movie’s thrill are blood and violence: not a great quantity of it, but what there is is fairly graphic, so be warned (or teased). As some critics have noted, there is not enormous character development (this was the main departure from the book, according to my memory of my movie date’s report). But the acting is more than fair, in my opinion, and I would call this story – at least the movie version of it – plot-driven rather than character-driven, so it still worked out okay for me. I enjoyed the mystery, the twists and surprises, and the bloody denouement. This was an entertaining thriller. Not mind-blowing, but worth the price of entry. I’m even interested in the book now – even though I know its secrets – and that may be the nicest part of all.

Rating: 7 wine bottles opened.

Make Me by Lee Child

make-meWhen my grandmother was visiting Bellingham, in the final days of my residence there, we took a walk through the new location of the local indy bookstore. I was excited at the prospect of having time to choose a book to read on our big drive south, a book just for me and just for fun; so I bought myself a paperback copy of Lee Child’s latest. I read this book in a day and a half, in Durango, Colorado and on the road from there to Santa Fe. It was a deeply pleasurable time.

It’s been a while since I read any Lee Child, and Reacher was just as I remembered him. The formula is perhaps getting a little see-through at this point; but I love it no less.

Reacher gets off the train in the little town of Mother’s Rest, in the middle of nowhere. (I suspect Mother’s Rest is in Kansas, although it is never stated, and it is, of course, a fictional place.) When he steps off the train, he is greeted by a woman clearly waiting for someone, and disappointed Reacher isn’t that someone. He’s really just curious about the name of the town, though none of the locals can or will explain it to him. Instead, he finds them oddly surly, even antagonistic. What’s going on in Mother’s Rest? And what happened to the man Reacher was mistaken for at the train depot?

The locals are up to something, of course, and of course Reacher is the man to figure out what. Following the formula, he teams up with an attractive and highly competent woman, beats up on the baddies, and untangles the plot. He is at once a do-gooder, motivated to defend the world’s innocents, and an isolationist, apt to keep moving unless dragged into things by outside forces–like the bad guys trying to mess with him. The tagline for this novel’s title: “But as always, Reacher’s rule is: If you want me to stop, you’re going to have to make me.”

Like I said, the formula is clear to me. But this fast-paced, involved and involving, smart plot; Reacher’s big, handsome, smart (if a little fantastic) superhero powers; and the detailed, fully-formed world of Mother’s Rest are totally compelling. I scarcely put this book down, and was so sorry when it was over. On the other hand: in my paperback copy, Make Me was followed by a Reacher short story “Small Wars,” and then by an excerpt from the next Reacher novel, Night School, due for publication just next month. Lee Child really knows what he’s doing, cranking them out like this, and keeping us teased along the way. And, happily, the quality does not decline. My fandom is again confirmed.

To review: more of the same Reacher, except different in its particulars, so Child’s fans are never bored. You could start here or anywhere in the series, as they all jump around in time. But beware that once you start, you may not want to stop.

Rating: 8 hogs.

book beginnings on Friday: Make Me by Lee Child

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Hooray! We’re back to Reacher again!


The big move south yielded the possibility of spare moments of reading time just for me, and I was delighted to pick up the latest Lee Child (note that he has another out just next month!). It begins:

Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy. It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house.

If this were not a Reacher novel, I might imagine that this burial strategy was merely practical, even possibly respectful, a la Gilbert Grape. But because this is a Reacher novel, of course, I suspect more nefarious dealings. I also like that Child gets us right into the action: in three sentences we assume we are deep into a murder case. And, action!

The Motion of Puppets by Keith Donohue

This reworking of the myth of Eurydice features a woman locked in a world of sentient puppets.

the motion of puppets

With The Motion of Puppets, Keith Donohue (The Boy Who Drew Monsters) evokes a bizarre underworld with an array of mythological references in a story of lovers seeking reunion. Newlyweds Kay and Theo Harper have come to Quebec for the summer, where she works as an acrobat in a cirque and he wrestles with a work in translation between semesters teaching French literature in New York City. The first line of the novel reads: “She fell in love with a puppet.” And this is where the trouble begins.

A puppet shop in Quebec’s Old City draws Kay’s attention daily, but the door is always locked, the lights off. One night, when returning from a party after midnight, she fears she is being followed and, finding the door unlocked for once, slips inside. Theo contacts the police when she does not return home, but no trace can be found of her. The rest of The Motion of Puppets alternates between their two experiences. Theo searches Quebec all summer for his wife, then returns to New York City and his work, distracted and mourning. Meanwhile, Kay adjusts to new circumstances: she has become a puppet. Along with the other puppets shut away in the shop she once admired, she is able to speak and move on her own only between midnight and dawn–once she learns how to move again in her new body. Eventually, she takes pleasure in performing (with the help of a puppeteer) for audiences, as she had in the cirque. And she makes new friends, especially with the one puppet who also remembers and yearns for her human form.

This dreamy, sinister novel alludes widely to history, literature and legend. Theo’s translation project is a biography of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose work involved scientific knowledge of human and animal locomotion. Muybridge shot and killed his much younger wife’s lover, a story that preoccupies Theo, also an ardent–if not clingy–older husband. One of Theo’s colleagues is a professor of antiquities who is equally eager to find relationships between past and present. Most pointedly, however, Kay’s predicament is a reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus misses his wife so terribly that Hades agrees to let her leave the underworld and return to life with him, under one diabolical condition. In Donohue’s novel, Theo’s ability to save Kay from her incarnation as a puppet relies on his ability to trust her. But first, she must make him recognize her in her new form.

An engrossing novel of love, fancy and enchantment, The Motion of Puppets offers a perfectly wrought moodiness, detailed settings and an unsettling plot. Kay and Theo are underdeveloped as characters, but serve the mythic proportions of the story well. Smart, eerie and moving, this puppet show holds the potential to transport its reader to another world.

This review originally ran in the August 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 hinges.

The Trespasser by Tana French

Tana French surpasses herself with character nuance and plot twists in her sixth gritty, Dublin-set murder-mystery.


Tana French’s sixth novel, The Trespasser, revisits the burgeoning careers of Dublin Murder Squad Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, introduced in The Secret Place. As atmospheric and intricate as French’s past work, this engrossing mystery succeeds in both style and plot. Fans and new readers alike will be captivated.

Conway and Moran are partners now, but they are far from fitting in with the rest of the Murder Squad. The guys–and they are all guys–give Conway more than the usual rookie hazing. In the opening pages, she and Moran are assigned what looks like yet another boring domestic homicide: a beautiful young woman has been killed, apparently in a fit of passion during a romantic dinner at home. A little too perfect, she “looks like Dead Barbie,” and her apartment “like it was bought through some Decorate Your Home app.” But most disturbingly, Conway is sure she’s seen the vic somewhere before. The young detectives may be a little overeager to find links to organized crime or something more involved, but as this case unfolds, the ambitious Moran and much-beleaguered Conway find wider-reaching connections than they’d bargained for. As an added headache, the obnoxious veteran Detective Breslin has been assigned to “assist” Conway, who is ostensibly the lead detective, though Breslin seems to think he can call the shots.

French’s fans will recognize of the hallmarks of her mystery novels: intense interior struggles afflicting the protagonist detective; a potent undercurrent of class tensions; a case that appears to have a mind of its own; a victim whose personality haunts those who are seeking justice. The oppressive mood of the Murder Squad threatens to overwhelm Conway, who’s barely holding it together under the stress of workplace harassment; the incident room she is assigned becomes a character unto itself. The Trespasser is told in Conway’s voice, giving the reader full access to her troubles and offering perhaps a hint of the unreliable narrator to sneak in.

It is a testament to French’s talent that she more than matches her established achievements in characterization, dialogue, atmosphere and detailed setting, while also surprising her reader at every turn. She offers layers of possible betrayal, hypothetical events and convoluted stories, even an upheaval in Conway’s private life that echoes an element of the case at hand. More than 400 pages pass by almost without blinking, as The Trespasser‘s momentum presses forward to a finish that staggers Conway and Moran as much as it does the reader. This is a complex, compulsively readable novel; French keeps getting better and better.

This review originally ran in the August 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 stories we tell ourselves.

Mississippi Noir ed. by Tom Franklin

Collected noir stories firmly grounded in Mississippi atmosphere offer a concise view of the genre’s possibilities.

mississippi noir

Akashic Books’ noir series travels to Mississippi, with Tom Franklin editing this collection of short stories by both established and newly published authors. Mississippi Noir includes 16 tales, symmetrically organized in four sections of four: “Conquest & Revenge,” “Wayward Youth,” “Bloodlines” and “Skipping Town.” The thematic groupings are loose, and the contents work equally well in any order, picked up and put down as the reader chooses.

These chilling stories vary in length, from 20-some pages down to just a few, and though they cover a range of subjects and settings in time, they consistently embody the ideal of noir writing with a strong sense of place. Bullets, blood, abuse and longing appear frequently, with some sex scenes thrown in as well. Ace Atkins writes of desperate teens running out of options; Megan Abbott, in a scintillating contribution, views from both sides a romance gone tragically wrong; Chris Offutt’s understated story stars a waitress drifting from town to town; and Dominiqua Dickey’s first published story involves an interracial romance in 1936. Within all of the pieces, the authors pay special attention to local details: natural beauty, economic depression, college culture, the longing to escape a small town or the yearning for a wider world.

These stories are dark by definition, and marked by unhappiness: as one narrator sighs, “I wanted sleep to pass without actually having to sleep. I wanted the future.” But an appreciation for the surroundings is always evident; these pages drip with Mississippi humidity. Fans of classic noir will be pleased and rooted in this redolent setting.

This review originally ran in the August 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 bullets.

Among the Wicked by Linda Castillo

A gutsy police chief goes undercover in Amish country, reentering a life she thought she’d left behind.

among the wicked

Linda Castillo’s Among the Wicked continues the serial adventures of a likable detective with an unusual background. Kate Burkholder is chief of police in Painters Mill, Ohio, a community more than half Amish. Her relationship with that faith, which she left as a teen, both pervades and complicates her work. She speaks Pennsylvania Dutch and understands the culture, but many resent her desertion. When a young girl dies under suspicious circumstances in the particularly insular Amish community of Roaring Springs, N.Y., Kate is the obvious choice to go in undercover. Her boyfriend, also a cop, has misgivings, but as her fans know, Kate won’t step down from a challenge–or a chance to help.

To enter this secretive society, which is led by a powerful, charismatic and possibly dangerous man, Kate must assume an identity that closely resembles one she might have lived. She poses as a widow, making new friends as well as new enemies. As she nears the frightening truth of Roaring Springs, Kate’s experience among the Amish drives her to reconsider her decisions regarding the faith.

Romantic developments in Kate’s personal life sweetly offset the disturbing events in this engrossing novel. Castillo’s skills are broad. Despite its deceptively quiet setting in Amish country, Among the Wicked is a high-speed, adrenaline-filled case of terror and intrigue: fast-paced and plot-driven, but with nuanced characters and an eye for detail where many thrillers slack off. This gritty mystery will equally satisfy fans of the Kate Burkholder series and first-time readers.

This review originally ran in the July 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 stitches.
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